Where would the Wife of Bath (from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales) be placed in Dante's vision of hell, in Dante's Inferno, by Dante Alighieri (Dante)?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If I were to place the Wife of Bath, from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales somewhere in Dante's hell, it would be in the second circle, that of lust.

We learn in The Prologue of the Wife of Bath. She has been on several pilgrimages, having gone three times to Jerusalem and once to Rome, among other places. She is first in line in her "parish" to give her offering at church. While she goes through all the motions of being a virtuous woman, and no one can fault her for her dealings with other people, she is not "chaste" and demure, as a good wife or widow should be.

The Wife of Bath has been married a number of times:

She was a worthy woman all her life;

Five times at the church door had see been a wife... (355-356)

Chaucer's introduction of this character goes on to note...

Perhaps she knew love remedies, for she

Had danced the old game long and cunningly. (371-372)

What we learn in The Prologue is that the Wife of Bath is no stranger to love or marriage—long knowing that "dance"—and has been married several times. However, the fact that these marriages do not include "other company in youth," ...seems to indicate that not all of her relationships have enjoyed the church's matrimonial blessings.

In The Canterbury Tales, we come to the Wife's tale. Before she begins to tell the story requested of her, she informs her audience of fellow pilgrims that she married first when she was twelve. She informs the company that she is looking for husband number six. (They have all died: the inference is that she wore them out in the bedroom.) She says that God created people, and created sex for them to enjoy. She enjoys it. As for marrying again, she believes this is God's plan for her life: to marry. She also feels it is her right to control the marriage, keeping her husbands off-balance by accusing them of wrong-doings, in which case each does his best to convince her that she is wrong by giving her many gifts. As a result, she is a woman used to getting her way, and is quite wealthy as well.

The wife tries to illustrate the upside to marriage. The Wife's story is about one of Arthur's knights who "ravishes" a woman and is sentenced to die. The Queen intercedes and asks that she and the ladies of her court deal with his punishment—and in doling it out, the youth must travel the land for a year to find the answer to the question, "What is it that women truly want?"

On the last day, he meets a hag who will give him the answer if he gives her a wish. Agreeing, he reports to the Queen that women want to have their own way, always, with men. The hag wants the knight to marry her, which he does unwillingly. He complains that she is old and ugly—he cannot bear it; but then his wife turns into a beautiful young woman. There are several versions of this part of the tale: she can be beautiful by day and ugly by night (or vice versa), or beautiful and unfaithful, or ugly and faithful. Wisely, the knight leaves the choice to her, and he has a beautiful and faithful wife all the time.

The Wife proves (she thinks) that looks don't matter when it comes to pleasing a man—her lure to securing another husband.

Dante, dealing with a concept as tricky then as now, characterizes that lust is not love:

[For] Dante the line separating lust from love is crossed when one acts on this misguided desire...

As one of the "capital" sins, the Wife of Bath would be sentenced to the second circle of hell for the sin of lust, based on Dante's vision of hell.

dalejo eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Not sure if this answers your question but ... here goes :

Dante gave in depth details in his description of Hell in the Inferno.  Each placement of each sinner is placed into one of the nine circles of Hell because of a sin they committed against God.  As the levels of Hell increase in number, the sins committed grow in severity.  The Wife of Bath had five husbands in her entire life.  She married her last husband at the age of forty when her husband was twenty years old.  She led a free life of prosperity and happiness. According to Dante’s Inferno, the Wife of Bath’s sins of lust, flattery, and theft place her in different rings of Hell according to Dante’s interpretation.

   According to Dante, the Wife of Bath would be placed in the Second Circle of Hell because she was lustful toward men.  In Dante’s Inferno, Dante entered the Second Circle of Hell with Virgil, Dante’s guide through Hell.  While passing through, Virgil points out the sinners to Dante and “named to [Dante] more than a thousand shades departed from our life because of love.” (Inferno p. 43, L.67-69).  While in the Second Circle, Dante encountered a woman, Francesca, in the Second Circle of Hell.  Francesca told Dante that she was in Hell because she lusted after her husband’s younger brother.  She not only lusted after another man, she spent many days in his company.  One day, they read Lancelot together and love overtook their actions, “when [they] had read how the desired smile was kissed by one who was so true a lover, this one, who never shall be parted from [her], while all his body trembled, kissed [her] mouth” (Inferno p. 47, L. 133-136).  Francesca deserved to be in the Second Circle of Hell because of her lust.  This fits the Wife of Bath’s character because she lusted after many men, shown by her five marriages.  While married to her fourth husband, she lusted after a man named Jankin.  The Wife of Bath and Jankin spent time together while she was still married.   The Wife of Bath deserves to be placed in the Second Circle of Hell because of the way she lusted after Jankin.

According to Dante, the Wife of Bath may also be placed in the Eighth Circle, Second Pouch of Hell because she flattered Jankin, her clerk.  In Dante’s Inferno, Dante and Virgil passed through the Eighth Circle, Second Pouch and encountered a man named Thaïs.  Thaïs spoke to Dante and Virgil and said he was in Hell “‘because of flatteries—of which my tongue had such sufficiency’” (Inferno p. 167, L. 125-126).  Virgil explained the rest of Thaïs’ story that he was “‘the harlot who returned her lover’s question, ‘Are you very grateful to me?’ by saying, ‘Yes, enormously’” (Inferno p. 167, L. 133-135).  Thaïs’ characteristic of flattery also fits the Wife of Bath’s characteristic.  While the Wife of Bath was married to her fourth husband, she flattered another man named Jankin.  She spoke to him while they were alone.

The Wife of Bath tried to flatter Jankin by lying to him that she thought of him all night and that he would bring her luck.  The Wife of Bath deserves to be placed in the Eighth Circle, Second Pouch of Hell because of the way she flattered Jankin.

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Dante's Inferno

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